“Fair, fair,” cry the ospreys
On the island in the river.
Lovely is this noble lady,
Fit bride for our lord.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must seek it.
Shy was this noble lady;
Day and night he sought her.

Sought her and could not get her;
Day and night he grieved.
Long thoughts, oh, long, unhappy thoughts,
Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must gather it.
Shy is this noble lady;
With great zither and little we hearten her.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must choose it.
Shy is this noble lady;
With bells and drums we will gladden her.

Above is the first poem in the Shijing (The Book of Songs, trans. Arthur Waley, ed. Joseph R. Allen). The interpretation of it that I shall offer does not pretend to accurately capture the intent of its author(s). Or, more precisely, there is an inflection point in the interpretation, which I will try to signal clearly, where I shift from fairly secure to quite uncertain ground.

Let us start with what appears to me beyond dispute. The first stanza introduces us to a lord and his (presumptive—hold the thought) bride. But where the first stanza suggests a poem of celebration, the second introduces a sorrowful note: he seeks her day and night, but she is shy, and evades him. This note is amplified in the next stanza, which confirms (if it was in any doubt) that, though he seeks her, he cannot find her.

Interestingly, the second stanza compares the lord’s search to the search for the water mallow, which grows in patches “to left and right.” I suspect, though I do not know, that “to left and right” is an idiom that means “everywhere” or “all over.” In this case, however, the literal meaning is important, too (here I am trusting that “to left and right” is something like a literal translation). For we see, in the third stanza, the lord’s sleep troubled by his grief: “Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.”

The power of this image comes from the parallel between the search for the water mallow (“to left and right one must seek it”) and the lord’s tossing and turning: he seeks her in his sleep. The water mallow is not a generic image of searching for what is difficult to find, but an image that matches his particular search.

At this point I leave firm ground behind. On a first reading of the poem, the final two stanzas appear straightforwardly to suggest that he has found her, and that now he (and those around him) “hearten” and “gladden” her with zither and bells and drums. The modification of the image of the water mallow (from “seek” to “gather” and “choose”) especially suggests this. Ultimately, I think this is probably the most plausible reading of the poem. But I detect an undercurrent that enriches the poem.

There are a few elements of the poem that speak against the reading just offered. First is the continued description of the lady as shy. She is still evasive, still in need of reassurance, of being heartened and gladdened. And at this point we may recall that the first stanza tells us, not that she is his bride, but that she is fit to be his bride, which is something quite different.

But what most encourages me along these lines is that we are never told that he has found her. The third stanza ends with him seeking her in sleep. It is never indicated that he wakes up. Thus there is the possibility, impossible to rule out, that he has found her only in sleep, that he heartens and gladdens her only in sleep. It is even possible that the zither and drums and bells are not the happy conclusion of a successful search, but tools of the search itself, the means by which he attempts to draw her out of her shyness.

There are thus two possible readings of the poem. On the first, it captures the truest and most poetic of moods, exuberance flecked with sorrow. On the second, the sorrow predominates, the flecks encroach upon and overtake the whole. Were I forced to choose between them, I would likely take the first. But I would resent the choice, for the richness of the poem, as I read it, lies not in either reading but in the antagonism between the two.